Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Anguish of Galileo

ガリレオの苦悩 (Garireo no kunou, The Anguish of Galileo, 2008) is a collection of five detective stories by HIGASHINO Keigo (東野圭吾). Higashino is best known in the west for The Devotion of Suspect X; and these stories are the third collection from the same series, featuring the genius physics professor, YUKAWA Manabu (湯川学), who is consulted by his friend KUSANAGI (草薙), a police detective, and Kusanagi's younger colleague, UTSUMI (内海). I've read two novels in the series and the second collection of short stories,予知夢 (Yochimu, Prophetic Dream, 2000). Utsumi is a new character, who also appears as the main character in the television series Detective Galileo, which started in 2007. In the books the police role is divided fairly evenly between Kusanagi, experienced but stubborn, and Utsumi, who is shown in the typical role in police stories as a woman policeman who has to fight to get her view of the case recognised.

In 予知夢 Yukawa's role was more or less that of armchair (or laboratory) detective, as I remember. (It's several years since I read it, before I started this blog; if you're curious, there's a review here). In these stories, following the model of The Devotion of Suspect X, there is often a more personal and active involvement.

Ochiru (Fall): a woman falls from the balcony of her appartment. It looks like suicide; but Utsumi comes to suspect that one witness is hiding the fact that he was involved with the victim. The witness though has a perfect alibi. He was walking just below the apartment when the victim fell.

Ayatsuru (Manipulate): Yukawa is invited to a dinner by a retired physics lecturer along with other former students. The old man, more or less limited to a wheelchair, lives with his illegitimate daughter. His estranged son by an earlier marriage has also recently moved in and is staying, an unpleasant and unwelcome guest, in a little house in the grounds. If you're familiar with the conventions of the detective story, you'll know that staying in a place like that is basically signing your own death warrant. So it's no surprise when the son is murdered while the guests are gathered together. The daughter was with them, but her father had been taking a rest alone. Still, in his condition he could not possibly have committed the murder.

Tojiru (Close): Higashino uses deliberately unconventional kanji for these stories. The one's used here are actually those for 'Locked Room'; and this is indeed a locked room mystery. Yukawa is invited by a friend to his inn in the mountains. A guest had died mysteriously, either by suicide or accident it seems, falling into a ravine not far from the inn. The locked room is not where he was killed, but the room where he was staying. Before his death was discovered the innkeeper had been puzzled when the guest did not appear for dinner and had looked at his room and found it locked from the inside; but he had had a strong feeling that there was actually nobody in the room. Yukawa is invited to solve this puzzle; but despite inviting him, the friend seems strangely unwilling to cooperate with the investigation.

Shimesu (Show): Utsumi is watching the daughter of a woman suspected of murder. When they see her finding the (now dead) dog that had gone missing from the victim's house, she claims to have discovered it by dowsing. Utsumi is unwilling to believe that she is lying. She had observed the girl using her necklace for divination as she followed her; but is such a thing possible?

Midasu (Throw into Confusion): a serial killer is taunting the police with his claimed undetectable murder method; and he has a particular interest in Yukawa.

These are all competent stories, but not especially interesting. The idea of a locked room mystery without a victim in it is a nice one though.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Kurt the Wednesday Child

I've already reviewed several books by 大井三重子 (OOI Mieko), the writer of  the collection of children's stories, 水曜日のクルト (suiyoubi no Kuruto, Kurt of Wednesday, 1961); but they were books under a different name and in a different character, as the postwar detective story writer NIKI Etsuko. She had been trying to establish herself as a children's writer when she won the Edogawa Rampo prize for her first detective novel 猫は知っていた (The Cat Knew, 1957), a genre with which she had more success. The stories gathered in this collection are fairy tale type fantasies of various kinds.

The title story, 'Kurt the Wednesday Child', is not one of the strongest, in my opinion. A children's illustrator after meeting a young boy on a Wednesday mysteriously loses items and as mysteriously regains them, while losing other ones. Like all the stories in the collection it is engagingly narrated and inventive; but the invention here is very diffuse, a bundle of different ideas that don't really connect. The style felt a little like a dilute version of MIYAZAWA Kenji's style in the stories in 注文の多い料理店 (chuumon no ooi ryouriten, The Restaurant of Many Orders, 1924).

The second story, 'The Memoir Art Gallery', is a well worked out story that perhaps does not add up to much more than its central, not very surprising, metaphor. The main character, a young boy, finds an art gallery that anyone can visit, but each visitor can only enter one room. The paintings in that gallery all depict people and incidents important to the visitor, whether welcome or not.

The third, 'The Life of a Puddle', is another piece that somewhat predictably follows a familiar genre, in this case the slightly moralising narration of the life of an inanimate object.

'The Story of the Mysterious Water Ladle' is a long and quite lively story of a good hearted cobbler, who is given a magical ladle by a homeless wanderer he invites in. The cobbler wants to give shoes to the poor children in his neighbourhood, but the pair he has just made for one boy is the first he has been able to afford to make in months. The stranger has him plant the shoes, then water them with the ladle. The next day a tree with shoes instead of fruit is growing in the garden. The cobbler plants hat trees and coat trees to make presents for his neighbours, but attracts the attention of the country's king, who confiscates the ladle and finds a horrible new use for it. The ideas in the story are again very familiar, but they combine well to make an interesting story with unexpected plot developments. In this story, Ooi makes the narrator a character, a grandfather visiting his grandchildren.

Unlike the cheerful stories that make up most of the collection, 'The Blood Coloured Cloud' is an unhappy story about war. From the harbour wall a girl sends a piece of paper out towards the horizon where she can see a pink cloud. On the paper she had written 'To the person beneath the pink cloud, please be my friend, Lily.' One day a little sea plane arrives with a boy who had found the letter, a cadet in the neighbouring country's airforce; but on the same day trucks roll through the town with loudspeakers announcing the start of hostilities with that country. Soon Lily's two brothers are called up to fight. This is clearly a more personal story (the author lost one brother in the second world war).

'The Conserve Jars of Things that Are or Could Be' returns to more whimsical magic. An old witch rewards a shopkeeper by making a set of jamjars which contain anything he or his family might need. When they have fulfilled all their needs they start giving away the remaining jars to customers. A girl from the neighbouring town makes friends with a rich invalid boy when his family accidentally leave him unattended and she shows him a nearby wood where they can gather acorns. Much later, learning that the boy is expected to die, she sets off to walk to the shop, hoping to give him one of the magic jars; but there is now only one left, which no other customer had wanted to take.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Stepfather Step

The books by MIYABE Miyuki that I've discussed here have been nearer to crime novels than to the traditional idea of a mystery. ステップファーザー・ステップ (steppufāzā steppu, Stepfather Step, 1993) is a set of lighthearted traditional puzzle mystery stories, with the same characters. These are the narrator, a professional thief, and two middle school children, identical twins Satoru and Tadashi, who pick him up after he falls off a roof. The twins have been abandoned by their parents, who have each separately run off with a new partner, and are trying to get by alone rather than letting the state take them into its care. The money however is running out and they think that the thief can help them make some more. Gradually over the course of several stories, the thief comes to be a kind of replacement parent for the children. The book was made into a television series in 2012.

The actual mysteries use clues and tricks like those of golden age detective stories, but still fairly loosely plotted, with more emphasis on parts of the story incidental to the puzzle. The mysteries generally involve serious crimes, such as attempted murder and kidnapping, but occasionally the stories turn on a non-criminal mystery. The setting reflects modern everyday life, but the humorous approach is treated as a licence to include much that is unrealistic or deliberately absurd. The book was an easy, light read, but the mixture of humour and sentiment didn't always work for me. It felt like there was some sort of emotional satisfaction that readers were meant to get from the book that passed me by.